December 8, 2014

Pig Plus Parsley

One of the great culinary treasures of Burgundy is jambon persillé, or parsleyed ham. Dans le temps, as they say here when referring to the old days, it was a specialty eaten at Easter. It is essentially ham, spices, herbs, gelatin and parsley, placed in a terrine and served as either apéritif or as an entrée, which here means the entry to the meal. (Some in the new world would call it an "appetizer.") 

Nowadays, it is ubiquitous in the region, served in restaurants, homes, and during any respectable social gathering. That does not mean, however, that it is uniformly good. Just like some pizza is better than others, some parsleyed ham dazzles and some depresses. 

There are two major potential problems: the ham is too chunky, leaving the diner with a mouthful of, well, ham; and the parsley is not present enough. When both faults are combined, it is a gastronomic catastrophe: chewy hunks 'o ham, no special ingredient love.

In September, I chanced upon a jewel of this specialty. I had been invited into a home in Arnay le Duc after a day of grape harvesting. The master of the house took me down to his wine cellar to regale me with his Pommards, Gevrey-Chambertins, and other appellations from the area. (Needless to say, nary a Bordeaux in site...and certainly not an American Chardonnay!) He plucked a bottle of Santanay white from the racks and we went back into the kitchen, where five of us huddled around a table as he poured the perfect take-the-edge-off wine after a long day toiling in the vineyards of Burgundy.

The lady of the house was more than ready to feed these smelly harvesters, dropping gougères, crackers, and some jambon persillé on the table in front of us. The layer of parsley was thick and pronounced. The flesh had been shredded, like pulled pork, ("he does it with a fork, à l'ancienne, it was explained to me) and we Hoovered up squares of it on toothpicks. My hostess explained that it was made by a retired restaurateur who made it in his home, just for friends. It was a flavor explosion, a mix of salty ham, bay leaf and thyme, all topped by the green goodness of gelled parsley. It married the wine to perfection, and they urged me to live up to my American reputation by finishing the plate well after I was sated. I, of course, obliged.

A few weeks later, I encountered my hostess in town. I wondered if she could put me in touch with the retired chef so that I might watch him work one day, hoping to uncover a few secrets of the trade and improve my understanding and appreciation of this culinary treat. 

I forgot about my request until the other day, when my hostess said he was making a batch this week. Would I be available Friday afternoon? Yes, I would be.

Jacky at Work
I arrived at Jacky's house in the early afternoon, and we walked through his dining room and kitchen, out a door to the backyard, walked through a small shed, and emerged in a secondary backyard, where we took a right turn to enter his "other kitchen." This one had all the signs of a professional cuisine: stainless steel tables, sinks, and stoves; a wide variety of knives; and giant pots and pans. (Poaching a whole salmon? No problem.) 

On the stovetop sat an enormous metal pot, bubbling with 15 pounds of pork shoulder, white wine, carrots, onions, bay leaves, thyme, and other secret ingredients. Jacky described how he had injected the meat with a special salt to give it flavor on the inside, as well as its characteristic pink color. (Anyone who has seen a cooked pork chop knows that pig flesh, is, in fact, the other white meat, and not pink.) A Cuisinart bowl brimmed with chopped parsley. Jacky took a tray out of the refrigerator that was dotted with little plastic tubs containing a bottom layer of parsley and gelatin. He ladled a little bit more gelatin into each one and returned the tray to its chilled home.

He then lifted a whole pork shoulder (which he had purchased from the slaughter house in Autun) out of the boiling pot. He proceeded to remove the outer layer of fat with his fingers, placing it in a tray, and pulled the meat off the bone, slopping it into a big plastic tub about four inches deep. He donned latex gloves and began tearing it apart with his fingers. 

The heat proved too much, and he soon grabbed a long-tined fork, using it to pull the hunks of ham apart. The resulting strings were an olfactory orgasm: salty, herbaceous, root vegetables, and, bien sûr, a little white wine all delighted my nostrils. 

Mixing Fat
Jacky, who has done this approximately 57,148 times, was the picture of calm. (He later said that he had made tons of poached eggs in his time at the restaurant. Think about it: tons of eggs. As in several thousand pounds of poached eggs. I have poached probably 75 eggs in my 39 years. Some of my most loyal readers may hover around the "never" zone.) 

He pulled that ham apart until the tub was 2/3 full. Next came a secret step. Some people, he said, either leave the fatty bits in chunks (not a pleasant surprise in the mouth...too chewy), or, worse by far, don't include it. He wagged a finger and said, "It's what makes it moelleux (unctuous), so I put it in the Cuisinart and mix it in." As the chef chopped and stirred the pork fat into the pile of ham, he commented that it was not ideal for one's health, but it was delicious. 

Chopped Fat
Once the new mixture was done, he took the tray back out of the refrigerator and started spreading the meat mix on top of the jellied parsley. He alternated meat, parsley, meat, parsley, meat, topping it all with extra gelatin. "It will not be ready for one or two days, and lasts in the fridge for about a week," he explained. 

Throughout, his wife helped him chop parsley, wash dishes, and, in a little intimate moment that this American was touched to witness, she rolled up his sleeves for him, as his hands were covered in pig parts. 

Once the final product was back in the cold zone, we retired to the main house for -- what else? -- a kir. He showed me several hundred of his more than 7000 flies for fishing, offered me pate sucré made with quince and pineapple, and shared stories of his and his wife's world travels. She is Yugoslavian (she still calls herself as such, despite the conflicts in her country). These two unassuming, humble, hard-working people have been to Venezuela, Utah, Argentina, Vietnam, China, Florida, Egypt, Mali, Germany, Las Vegas, Russia, Tunisia, and Switzerland, among other destinations that figure on the average person's life list. Jacky laughed at the end, saying, "I could tell you about every part of the Atlantic Coast of the United States, but I've never been to the Atlantic Coast of my own country!"

You never know what you are going to find when you visit a retired restaurateur in small town France.

Finished Product

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